Category Archives: Writing exercises

A Better Kind of Nothing: A Day with Catherine Deveny

In she strode, begumbooted and beponchoed, red-lipsticked and bombastic. I’d seen Catherine Deveny speak before—about her novel The Happiness Show—and I was there for a dose of dynamite-under-the-bum-for-I-wanna-writers. Here was a woman who claims dyslexia and 1000+ columns for The Age in the same breath. A woman who says she bought a house relatively close to the city with her earnings from writing. If she can do it, can anyone? If so, how? Well, that’s what around 20 of we I-wanna-writers were there on Saturday to find out.

Backtrack: I remember reading Deveny’s columns years ago. I found them brazen, offensive and utterly, utterly addictive. I was brought up on a steady diet of toe-the-line, live-up-to-expectations, don’t-rock-the-boat and try-to-be-nice. I can’t remember the exact contents of her columns, save that they were on the back page of the Saturday supplement, but I do remember snorting, guffawing, gasping and exclaiming ‘You can’t say that!’ many, many times. This woman was pushing every boundary, crossing every line and being published for it. Remarkable.

Fast forward to 2013. My local library was promoting a literary calendar of author talks and I noticed that Deveny was one of the speakers, promoting her new novel. I RSVPed for me and my mum. After the talk:

Me: What did you think, Mum?

Mum: Well, she was certainly…confident.

Even though Mum stated it under a veil of there’s-a-load-I’m-not-saying, Deveny’s confidence was the hook for me. I want me some o’ that, I thought. Confidence has never been a problem for me, in general, but opening up about my writing, especially as I’m getting older, has been challenging for me. Am I good enough? What does ‘good enough’ even mean, anyway? Deveny’s baseline M.O. is who gives a fuck what anyone else thinks anyway?

I read The Happiness Show. Let’s be honest—I wanted to see for myself whether this brazen, funny columnist could turn out a decent novel. It was a cracking story and Deveny displayed a particular talent for dialogue and a realistic litany of cultural references. I liked it. By jingoes, she can write! thought I.

Fast forward to 2014. Last Saturday, to be precise. The City of Monash put on a writing workshop with Catherine Deveny as part of its (frankly, awesome) yearly WordFest calendar of events. I was there to soak up some of that overflowing confidence and do some writing exercises to get my imagination firing.

Her first comments to everyone were in the vein of If you thought you needed to be a literary genius to write, well, you can just fuck off. No matter what your personal opinion is of Deveny’s style, the woman is nothing if not encouraging. Who cares if you can’t spell? Who cares if you don’t read? Who cares if it’s not going to be a literary masterpiece? Her advice is clear: just write. To write you need only three things, she says:

1. Words.
2. Sentences.
3. Story.

Well, shit. Even I can do that.

The five hours that followed were centred around Deveny sharing her wisdom on getting stuff done, writing through the crap parts (because you never know what will reveal itself directly after the crap parts), ignoring what anyone and everyone says about your writing, and taking part in fun writing exercises she seemingly made up on the spot. She spoke to everyone individually and offered any insights we might find helpful. The thing I liked best: that she looked you directly in the eye while she was talking to you. It made her words take on keener meaning and made it feel like her advice was more likely to stick.

For me, the top 3 takeaways from the day were:

1. When you’re doing nothing, make sure it’s the best possible kind of nothing.

2. Work hard and just write, dammit. (All writers, whether literary geniuses or dyslexics, have that in common.)

3. Attempt it (whatever ‘it’ is) as if you could not fail.

After the workshop, as I was leaving the building, Deveny was just ahead of me. She saw me out of the corner of her eye, stopped and turned to look me in the eye. “I can’t wait to read your children’s stories”, she said.

Catherine, I can’t wait for that either. Thanks so much for your unique brand of encouragement.

*polyspective

Special shout out to the City of Monash, especially Sandhya Burton, for putting on such a wonderful variety of literary events. I am thoroughly enjoying myself.

Daft at the draft.

I want to enter a short story competition. I have a few ideas about what to write. Well, two ideas. They are vastly different to each other which is why I may be having trouble starting. Actually, the reason I am having trouble starting is because I have trouble starting everything. Anything. “Overthink” is an understatement when it comes to me. I have a really vivid interior monologue going on all the time and I can never get anything out of my head and into the world. It’s causing me problems. I think all the time. ALL the time. But I never actually do anything. I have vivid pictures in my head of all the things I will do, could do, should do, want to do, am able to do, have the potential to do. Day-changing things. Finance-changing things. Happiness-changing things. Self-esteem-changing things. Life-changing things. No, that is not overstating it.

I became obsessed with JK Rowling this week. She is so insightful. Actually, she is just such a goddamned hard worker. (I think I am afraid of hard work. How did this happen?) She knew what she wanted to do and she slogged away at it until she bloody well did it. The idea came to her on a train journey and she didn’t even have a pen to write it down. I tell my children stories all the time. They love them. People tell me I should write them down. Then I try to write them down and I literally can’t get a word onto a page. I spoke at length at [sic] a friend of mine about a topic I was passionate about. I think I literally spoke for half an hour straight and laid down some compelling, well reasoned argument. “You should write that all down,” she said, “in an article at least.” I think I managed to get a sentence or two down and then kaputski. Nothing.

[Two-year-old just asked to do a wee. Good boy!]

Someone suggested that I start with a skeleton, some high-level ideas, and then flesh it out. I can’t even get the thoughts to hang together in a straight line. Did JK Rowling start with a plan? What does a first draft even look like? In high school I got straight A+s for all my English and English Literature assignments and exams, and I don’t think I redrafted a single one. That sounds terribly obnoxious and full of myself, but it has caused a real problem for me. I’ve never learned how to work. REALLY work. You know, plug away at something, hone it, craft it, until I’ve gotten it just right. The art of the draft. Maybe high-school English is as good as I will ever be? Talk about peaking early.

[Sister’s umbrella just got stolen from right under her nose. Arsehole. Who DOES shit like that??]

But I’m writing now. Maybe these exercises help? I’ll try another one. I will try to be disciplined about it. One per day? Nah. My friend F says ‘just write when you can’. So I will.

*polyspective